It has taken most my lifetime for me to begin figuring out stuck emotions in relationship to my autism. In discussing this with other autistic adults I have discovered many share this problem. Some describe the stuck emotions as being shut down. There are variations of experience, but there seems to be a shared experience of stuck emotions in autistics. Everyone I have discussed this with agrees that stuck emotions are quite difficult to deal with and, in fact, have led to much misunderstanding and sometimes to psychiatric hospitalizations.
Even though I have been talking to other autistics about this topic, my knowledge is very small. I am writing this blog in hopes of generating continuing dialogue about this phenomenon of stuck emotions in autistics. I will share my thoughts and experiences and invite you to do the same.
For myself I have sorted out a small, medium and large experience of stuck emotions.
Example Using Laughing
Small Stuck Emotion: Sometimes I will think something is funny and laugh like everyone in the group might laugh. When my neurology is a bit sticky I will continue to laugh longer than most – maybe twice or three times as long. Socially this tends to look strange, especially when I do not know the people I am with very well, such as in a business related context. When I am with friends they do not get too fazed by the laughing as they know it will pass and I will catch up with them soonest if they draw no attention to my stuck laughing.
Medium Stuck Emotion: When the laughing continues for a longer time it becomes more problematic. Socially, people who are not in-the-know about the stuckness of my neurology determine my long laughing is a “behavior.” When I was younger people would sometimes try punishment, and other times rewards, in attempts to get me to stop the undesired behavior. Neither worked. I was often called stubborn.
Large Stuck Emotion: One time my stuck laughing went on for several hours. Physically, I felt pain in my sides and abdomen and my mouth became very dry. I tried to drink water, but couldn’t do so because of the laughing. I did manage to get water into my mouth, but couldn’t swallow it, instead spewing it out. At least it relieved the dryness of my mouth momentarily. I was living in a group home when this occurred. Because I was spitting water all over, the glass was taken away from me and I was ordered to my room until I could act appropriately. It was very scary to be alone, in pain and stuck in the laughing. My lips stuck to my teeth. I got a wet washcloth to put over my mouth. I started laughing mid morning, missed lunch, fell asleep and then woke up (no longer laughing) right before dinner. I am not sure if I stopped laughing when I fell asleep or if I laughed in my sleep for a while before it stopped. I drank lots of water, ate dinner and went back to bed, being utterly exhausted.
Different emotions translate to different kinds of stuckness. This can become dangerous at times. My neurology often goes for the match in many areas. This includes the way my brain processes information (thinking) along with the way I experience shared feelings in relationships.
When I am thinking about something, like what will I make for breakfast, all the pictures of past breakfasts will pop up similar to a fast moving slide show. Since I have eaten many breakfasts this can take a long time. To make it stop I must go look in the pantry or refrigerator to get the more confined and practical visual of what I have on hand to choose from. Even though I know what food is in the house I cannot stop the images of the lifetime of breakfasts flashing through my head until I match it by actually looking at the real food choices.
When it comes to relationships, I on purpose, do not have a lot of close friends. This is because I pick up on my friend’s emotions and often match them in my own body. When this happens the emotion my friend feels in regard to something becomes very intense and overwhelming for me to experience. It is like a way too big a dose of empathy. Once it starts I cannot shut it off, even though my friend may be able to do so. Just like my visual thinking automatically goes for the picture match, in my close relationships my neurology automatically goes for the feeling match. Because of my autistic neurology I experience empathy too deeply. Not only is this overwhelming and draining, but at times can become dangerous.
Most autistics I’ve talked to experience this too-much-empathy magnification of other people’s feelings in their own bodies. Most talk about experiencing the two extremes – the too much empathy or the complete emotional shutdown. There seems to be no middle ground; it is all or nothing. Some talk about these two extremes both happening for them automatically, in that when the empathy becomes too intense, they automatically shut down. Others report having the ability to choose to shut down rather than to experience the too much empathy.
For me, the overwhelming experience of too much empathy is a huge stuckness in the feeling of a close friend. The worst for me, and something that can become personally dangerous, is when I feel cut off from people emotionally. Something entirely out of my control tries to match with the person who is not in contact with me. Since the only way to match with something now perceived as non-existent is to also become non-existent myself, it becomes downright dangerous.
Even though the problem is about stuck emotions the solution is NOT in the emotional realm. I have lived long enough and experienced enough therapy to know this beyond a shadow of a doubt! I think it is a movement related issue – neurological brain movement IMHO. It doesn’t help when people want to treat the above example of emotional distance or disconnect as if I was suicidal. When this occurred some years ago I was not suicidal, even though the end results would be an act of suicide.
Conclusion and Invitation
Whether stuck in a small, medium or large way or whether it is over a simple matter or a potentially life threatening situation I want people to know that autistic neurological stuckness is not something I decide to be. Even though you may call the results of this a “behavior” and try to change it, please know your efforts will not have the desired impact. I do not decide to be this way, just like I did not decide to be autistic. Even so, it is my reality and the reality of many I’ve talked with over time.
I really don’t know the answers for us when we get this way, but certainly know the struggles. I hope many people chime in and add to this discussion so we might all get a better understanding of emotional stuckness in autistic people. Looking forward to your comments. Please, for the sake of sharing, if you place a comment on Facebook, Linked In or any other social media place please copy and paste that comment at the end of the blog at the Ollibean site. This will be the compilation space of our shared thoughts and experiences.
Here is the link to the Ollibean site:
Thank you all so much,
BOOKS BY JUDY ENDOW
Endow, J. (2019). Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology. Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.
Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2006). Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.